Journalism

Down the rabbit hole, thanks to NBC

rabbit hole

This probably isn’t the best way to counter claims of #fakenews

Heads up, Dear Reader. This is one of my weird process posts. If that’s your thing, won’t you join me as I try to untangle up from down on this tilt-a-whirl we call mass media?

Right. So here I sit, minding my own business, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, as you do. Down the screen comes a post from NBC. Critical Thought Alert: yellow. They hadn’t hit orange in a while. Had it been Fox, it would have been red, always red even when their stopped clock is right twice a day, but it’s just NBC. With them, you have to look for narrative, but at least they’re not entirely likely to go full Enquirer and make up something like Bat Boy. They’re probably not just going to completely flub something like rank amateurs.

Or will they? Unless I’m mistaken, what passes for journalism these days is a sausage made by committee. Nothing pretty about it.

Mental note: whatever article I’m seeing on Facebook is being posted by one of NBC’s social media staffers of the moment, which is not to be confused with the author or publisher of the story being shared. It might not even be an NBC article (but it is). The key thing here is that the social media staffer, in the course of doing their job, is probably supposed to create just enough sizzle in their post to turn viewers into clicks. It’s all about advertising and conversion rates.

What else do I know about the staffer? Not a thing. Impossible to vet any farther than “passed NBC’s HR sniff test.” What is that on a scale of 1-10 where 10 is best?

Do NBC social media staffers routinely insert a bit of op-ed in their posts, mixing opinion with purportedly objective journalism? It’s entirely possible. I can’t say I’ve bothered to pay attention to that previously, but I’ll start trying to notice. Is that a common practice for NBC on Facebook…attach a little op-ed to the objective stuff, either in pursuit of conversions (by which I mean views turning to clicks turning to purchases from advertisers, not new NBC devotees, but, come to think of it, probably that, too), or in an attempt to prime the prospective reader to reach a particular conclusion about the piece, or possibly about something else entirely, if the article leads one to formulate an opinion about a related matter, or maybe a little of all of the above, perhaps?

I can’t say from experience, but those would all seem to be both means and motive for framing a narrative. How much framing can journalism sustain while remaining objective? One wonders these things, one does.

I have to wonder these things, because the social media plug for the article in question is:

President Trump: “Crime in Germany is way up.”

Official statistics: Germany last year recorded its lowest number of criminal offenses since 1992.

Whatever article follows, something is being said loud and clear in the plug. Whether the article bears it out remains to be seen.

Trump: the sky down there is pink

Reality: [insert fact-based observation here]

The social media staffer doesn’t even need to stoop to my usual cynicism and impute anything at all to Trump. Trump doesn’t wait for someone to hand him rope. He makes his own, tries it on for a tie, and tweets selfies. Media just needs to point. The readership is already primed for scoffing.

I was. “Haw haw! Lookit that Trump, figuratively twisting on his own figurative, and completely symbolic rope!”

I was a click from sharing. My finger muscles were primed and ready to go.

Wait a moment. Shouldn’t I add something snarky to my own share? Just a little salt for the wound, because I’m a troll like that? How about, “if anyone has facts to the contrary, I’ll be over here holding my breath.” I like versions of that one.  Ask both of my friends.

But when I do that particular riff, I like to do a quick search first just to see what someone is likely to lob back. If I pull up a bunch of Alex Jones and WND results, I know to brace myself for an aggravating giggle. I play rough because I allow my friends to play rough back, and since I refuse to live in a silo I have friends that disagree with me. About most things. I’ll tell you now, I eat enough crow to be used to it. I recommend the experience. You never develop a taste for it, and that’s the point. It makes a person less sloppy. Smug prick is fine. Sloppy? Uh uh.

So here I was, braced for WND. I get this, instead. Here, I present the search results from that first page in chronological order, to better see what’s going on here.

NBC’s SEO guru probably needs training or a new job because their iteration of this developing story doesn’t appear “above the fold” (page 1 of search results), or even on page 2, while both WashPo and CBS seem to have figured it out.

This was going to be such a short article. Really, it was. Instead, it’s turning into the kind of case study a person could write a thesis around. At least I won’t do that to you.

I included Wikipedia at the top of the list since it’s not dated in the same way as the remainder of the links. Critical Thought Alert: orange. We’ll see an example of why pretty soon. Without even looking at the article, one can see from the slug that its presence in the search results at least has some chance of priming a reader one way or another in regard to the remainder of the links. “Well, there’s some factoids that seem to support Trump entirely out of context.” I think we’re supposing a lot to suppose the average reader, much less average Trump supporter (so goes the bias) even puts this much thought into it, but I’m beginning to see why some folks might not even bother.

Over a year ago, the Telegraph was flogging the “immigrants and higher crime” narrative. I don’t know enough about the Telegraph to say with confidence, but can I suppose that’s an indicator of its usual position on the issue? One might.

Nearly a year later, BBC and Reuters report on a study commissioned by the government. Crime up, linked to migrants. This would seem to be a likely source of Trump’s today-thinking.

A month later, PBS is late to the game, but joins in on the link between migrants and higher crime rate.

May saw a weird month with Politico.eu (left? right? Beuller?) blaming a rise on leftist political violence thanks to riots, while the Independent talks almost simultaneously about the drop in crime, but look out, anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Then we get WashPo and CBS today, same day as NBC on Facebook, touting new government figures referencing end of year figures showing crime is down, but that’s from prior to the study reported on after that showing migrant-related violent crime is up significantly.

If this were a thesis, I’d be digging deep into who in the media, more broadly, was talking about which reports and when, and to what apparent end. Ordinarily, I’d think the apparent end is supposed to be objective journalism, but look at these slugs again:

WashPo: However, it may not be surprising that Trump sees crime rising in Germany when in fact it appears to be falling

CBS: German crime on the rise? No. President Trump tweeted: “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking …

NBC (Facebook): President Trump: “Crime in Germany is way up.” / Official statistics: Germany last year recorded its lowest number of criminal offenses since 1992.

As it turns out, the WashPo link is to editorial by any other name, just gussied up as Worldviews: Analysis. That’s high-minded branding for opinion. CBS is a touch more cryptic, almost but not quite click-baity about their hed. There’s crime rate and a Trump claim, click to see more. The slug tips their hand. The semantics there are loaded. That might as well be advertising a dogfight, they just weren’t as in your face about it as NBC.

Now, I’m anti-Trump as all get out. None of my observations are meant to bolster him or any of his causes. I’m like Prince Charming, and the media are all there to try on this here glass slipper. I just want to see who the blasted thing fits. It’s a damned ugly slipper, at that, and it fits far too many feet for my liking. None of them in this real-world tale, by the way, ever end up being Cinderella. I only ever find step-sisters.

At this stage, my intended troll has fallen to pieces. “If you have facts to the contrary, I’d love to see them” would yield plenty of crow for me to eat, because there’s some serious fuckery going on here. I wanted to find something iron clad with which to smite a Trumpian skull, and there’s friggin crow’s feet and beaks sticking out everywhere. “Facts to the contrary? Here!” Boom, a BBC link lands in my feed. They even look credible. Crap.

But what’s this?

According to the BBC, there’s a study. A government-commissioned study, at that. And that study shows that migrant-related crime isn’t just up, it’s way up. Could somebody have fed Trump this information? If he’s wrong, could he actually be blamed for getting it wrong when seemingly legit information leads him that way? Well, I mean aside from the fact that if he hadn’t cherry-picked a convenient study that supports him he’d have just made up something out of whole cloth anyway, but ain’t this just damned convenient? A study! A study commissioned by the German government, no less!

Critical Thought Alert: orange.

What study? Of what quality is the study? Hey, everybody, want to vet a study?

Fine. I’ll do it anyway since we don’t know for sure Trump is using it as his source, but he could be, and it’s awkward and inconvenient for the narrative we’re being sold by WashPo, CBS, and NBC. Let’s just look at the BBC article and find out what we can about this study.

…research commissioned by the government suggests.

The study used data…

The researchers say the findings…

The researchers also said…

The report comes as…

The report used statistics…

…the report suggested that…

…the researchers also said that…

The researchers said that…

But it said that…

…the study said.

It also said that…

Oh, here we go!

“Anyone who as a war refugee regards their chances of staying in Germany as good, will endeavour not to jeopardise those prospects by criminal offences,” the authors of the study said, quoted by Die Welt newspaper.

Nope.

Reuters news agency quoted criminology expert and study author Christian Pfeiffer as saying:…

Finally!

After that, the article devolves into the usual hodge-podge of related factoids for context and an attempt at an objective conclusion, but hello! At no point in the article (which has no byline…maybe the “reporter” is embarrassed by their output?) does the author ever state the name of the study, and we have to wait until nearly the end before the name of one author is dropped in almost by accident.

Maybe at this point I would have more luck trying to find the Die Welt article and having Google translate it into English for me. The English-speaker at BBC clearly had no intention of letting us find the report any more easily than that, after all. But at least we know a name, and I’m flighty, so let’s start there. It has to be better than wading through Google’s attempt at English by way of action-at-the-end German. Who is this Christian Pfeiffer, anyway? Vetting the author of a study is an important part of vetting the study, after all.

Dangit…translated Deutsche it is, then. Here’s a German Wikipedia article on the fellow, translated into English.

From what I can gather, he’s a lawyer/criminologist expert/”expert”(?) with a seemingly reputable pedigree, and he gets trotted out to talk shows now and again. Does that mean he’s good? Or is he the Dr. Oz of German criminology?

As I read about his work, he seems like my kind of guy. He’s worked on drawing a connection between authoritarian education and xenophobic violence. A decade later he had a study exploring the spread of right-wing extremist attitudes among young people.

Woo! Another study! One that would probably satisfy my own biases, even, but still…what about his study? Large? Small? Critical reception? Well, there’s one bit of critical reception right there in the Wikipedia article, and I’ll spill the beans in advance, it serves as an example of why anything from Wikipedia should be approached under Critical Thought Alert: orange. So let’s poke at it a bit.

The study came under criticism because of methodological deficiencies, which led to a significant bloating of the numbers.[3]

Seems legit. It even has a footnote. How legit can you get?

[3] Süddeutsche Zeitung : right-wing extremism among young people. Right-wing extremism among young people – Bad, really bad – Politics – Süddeutsche.de

All right. All I have to do is click, and we’ll see, translated or otherwise.

An error has occurred
The document you requested could not be found.

Well, then. It’s time to click lots of things. And along the way, while not yet finding the article with the critique of the methodology of the guy, which might shed light on how seriously to take his more recent government-commissioned work, I at least learn that the paper in which the as-yet-undiscovered article is a major German daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung, which, if Wikipedia is to be trusted , is liberal/center-left. So the liberal/center-left paper ran an article critical of the methodology used in a study with findings perhaps sympathetic to the paper's own leanings. Is that an indication that the study is just that bad? Or are they "objective" and featured a piece from "the other side?"

And what does all that say about the Wikipedia freelance internet rando editor who added the critical line to the expert's page?

As it happens, I was able to find the missing link, so to speak. Here it is, translated into English. It makes for an interesting read, and for anyone able to grok broken English, it's telling. The author reveals their own bias early on when they commit a bit of ad hominem right at the beginning by quoting Pfeiffer as being excited about foreigners and tainting the water right off by supposing that anyone excited about foreigners reveals by that excitement a very low threshold for what it would take for an outlook to qualify as "right-wing extremist." The author scoffs at numbers without providing justification. Paraphrased: as if that many teens would answer that way!

And, whether or not this author meant to do it, the author used a fairly standard trick (one we just saw from the BBC, no less)...reference a substantiating source without actually doing so.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung , whose view from outside is often clearer on the local conditions than that of the inside, has rightly criticized Pfeiffer's study for its methodological questionability.

Oh, great. Another bumpy ride on my arse farther down the rabbit hole. Neue what? Well, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica (a step up from Wiki's version of Funk & Wagnall, no?) in their no-idea-when-it-was-last-updated article, NZZ is a heavyweight Swiss paper, much to be taken seriously. If they criticized the findings, there must be something to it, right? With the usual gigantic grain of salt required by Funk & Wikipedia's, they claim that NZZ is liberal/center-right. That'll blow an American mind right there.

Just by the way, I think I'm in love with NZZ. I don't know if what I'm seeing here is typical of them today, but if so, American journalists should sit up and take notice. Even in broken Google Translate English they do a better job of presenting a story once one gets used to intuiting through the translated idioms. In regard to this particular study (by way of which I'm still attempting to vet Pfeiffer, let's not forget):

The cause for the alarm is the presentation of the research report "Young people in Germany as victims and perpetrators of violence", which was prepared by a group of scientists under the direction of Christian Pfeiffer at the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony in Hanover and based on questionnaire surveys of 44 610 15-year-old students ,

Holy crap. It's almost like they're allowed to cite an author early in an article, provide their title, and even structure a sentence to include details on the respondents in the referenced study.

Knock me over with a feather!

The Internet makes it possible to compare the media coverage directly with the text of the study, which is available in full text on the internet (www.kfn.de/versions/kfn/assets/fb107.pdf).

Who friggin' knew a journalist could include a link right to the original study and not to another bit of dubious journalism or editorializing about the study? That link probably even worked once upon a time. It's been nearly a decade, after all.

In any event, the rest of the article is worth the read, but it does leave me wondering something. Is it really as critical of the study as it would need to be for it to count as that Wiki reference we set out to vet? Or it is more critical of generally sloppy reportage on studies when said studies support a narrative. And does the critique maybe try just a little too hard to condemn that kind of reporting. The NZZ is, perhaps, right of center. In that context, this could also read as the sort of pish-poshing American Trumpists do when they talk about fine people. And, of course, I have no idea who this author is, either. NZZ apparently wasn't a fan of bylines then. As a result, I have no idea if the author is a token crank one trots out for the appearance of impartiality, but that doesn't sound in keeping with NZZ's reputation.

I haven't entirely struck out thus far. What I've pieced together is that one of the prominent co-authors of the German government-commissioned study reported on by the BBC at least appears to be consistent in his research, but that doesn't tell us much. A quick scan of scholar.google.com for C Pfeiffer turns up a mish-mash of other C Pfeiffers but it's pretty easy to single his work out from the rest. Long interested in youth violence. Not widely cited. Maybe solid? Lack of celebrity indicates no more than celebrity does.

Another tidbit I found by way of vetting Pfeiffer is this article of a few weeks ago. In keeping with his long-standing interest in youth and violence, he's apparently researched the relationship between domestic violence (possibly child abuse) and right-wing extremism, suicide, and eventually elder abuse perpetrated by the once-abused.

At this stage, my gut instinct is to trust Pfeiffer's acumen more than not, if on the only basis I have...his critics seem to have conflicting motives and not much more. I believe it helps his case that his results appear to be echoed in other research, but I leave that to the motivated reader to hunt down themselves. There's just something about the constellation of authoritarianism, old-school child-whoopins, conservatism, right-wing extremism, and xenophobic violence. Maybe if it happened less often it wouldn't look like a thing, right?

Hallelujah! The Seattle Times did a better, if slimmer, job of covering the Pfeiffer study, and thanks to that, I've got the search terms to find it. Auf Deutsche, naturally. The study is not, however, widely cited (at least not per Google Scholar).

After spending a few minutes translating headings in Google Translate, I at least can't see that the BBC mis-reported on the study. They just could have saved us all a ton of legwork.

In any case, the study seems to make exactly the claims made by the BBC.

What conclusions did the report reach?

The researchers said that the best chance of reducing violent crime among migrants was to offer more help with integration through language courses, sport and apprenticeships.

But it said that many male migrants fell into the 14-30 age category, the most likely to commit violent crime.

The lack of women and families among the migrants also meant that those young men were deprived of a "violence-preventing, civilising force", the study said.

The report suggested more migrants should be reunited with their families
It also said that migrants with little hope of being giving asylum in Germany were much more likely to commit violent crime than those from war zones like Syria whose asylum was guaranteed.

"Anyone who as a war refugee regards their chances of staying in Germany as good, will endeavour not to jeopardise those prospects by criminal offences," the authors of the study said, quoted by Die Welt newspaper.

Reuters news agency quoted criminology expert and study author Christian Pfeiffer as saying: "The situation is completely different for those who find out as soon as they arrive that they are totally undesirable here. No chance of working, of staying here."

In the Lower Saxony figures, 17% of crimes attributed to migrants were suspected of being committed by North Africans.

This group, which makes up less than 1% of the state's migrant population, has little chance of achieving legal status in Germany.

And here's where we end our little exploration of bias in the media.

It is entirely plausible that a Trump adviser passed a bullet-point or two to Trump, which was all the validation he would need to tweet as he has. Lookie! Migrant crime up! Bad! Sad! It is also entirely plausible that exactly zero Trump advisers went to the length I did, and entirely obvious that they have exactly zero reason to do so when it doesn't serve their agenda to do so. And I'm willing to bet my last pennies that Trump sure as hell didn't put this much thought into it.

That's a crying shame, really, because as we've come to learn from all this, while he might be technically correct on a narrow point, he's correct on a cherry-picked basis and utterly elides the inconvenient nuances which are the real substance of the study he probably doesn't even know justifies his ultimately mendacious claim. I'd say it takes a Trump to take truth and mangle directly into falsehood, but no.

It's not just Trump.

It's NBC. And WashPo. And CBS. And any of of the rest of mainstream media who also did not do this much legwork, also cherry-picked their studies, and also evidence bias front and center.

Trump: Migrant crime up! Don't believe #fakenews

#fakenews: No! Migrant crime down! Of course he's wrong. We're so great!

Is #fakenews right that migrant crime is down? I leave that to Dear Reader to jump through all hoops necessary to finding out. I'm willing to believe that, without any other context, a completely different study might very well, looking through different lenses, come up with conflicting data that may or may not actually conflict when looked at as a whole and in context. That's not the important part to me.

The important thing to me is that we're being fed the narratives and counter-narratives upon which we'll base our votes, and even our own moral standing, and there's hardly a one of us willing to do this much work to find out which narratives hold the most water under which conditions. Meanwhile, the MSM here blatantly shows off its contempt for objectivity, but we're not supposed to notice because it would be inconvenient to agree with Trump about something we've known at least through the Bush years...don't just trust the media. Given too much lead, they will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, drag us directly into the next multi-front war as long as it's good for heavily consolidated media shareholders.

At least I come away with a bit of schadenfreude.

Trump, in his race to trot out a fish with which to smack Merkel, accidentally ends up probably relying on research by a bloke whose work, taken as a whole, does more to undermine Trump support than not. Child-whoopin' authoritarian conservative sorts breed youth prone to right-wing extremism, and surprise, surprise, there's a healthy enough dose of xenophobia among the ranks that none of the nuances of machismo culture, absence of women and families as civilizing forces, the fact that most of the violence perpetrated by migrants is against other migrants, and that people reduced to hopelessness are more prone to violence makes any more difference to them abroad than it does right here at home.


Image: Valerie Hinojosa @ flickr.com, licensed under Creative Commons.

 

 

 

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